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Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism Paperback – February 21, 2010
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Winner of the 2008 Lannan Notable Book Award, Lannan Foundation
"[A] comprehensive diagnosis of our failings as a democratic polity by one of our most seasoned and respected political philosophers. . . . Democracy Incorporated is a devastating critique of the contemporary government of the United States--including what has happened to it in recent years and what must be done if it is not to disappear into history along with its classic totalitarian predecessors."--Chalmers Johnson, Truthdig
"[Democracy Incorporated provides] a rare, chilling analysis of intellectual critics of democracy. If democracy means more than occasional elections and protection of those rights that are compatible with economic and political elites' interests, Wolin's analysis of our democratic predicament is shocking, solid, and fundamentally correct."--C. P. Waligorski, Choice
"Sheldon Wolin has produced an ambitious and broad-ranging book that examines the current state of democracy in America. . . . Wolin argues that the unquestioned faith in the virtues of free market capitalism has dramatically narrowed the range of policy options that are on the table when debate turns to resolving the US's ills. . . .[T]his is a trenchant and powerful volume."--Alex Waddan, International Affairs
"Of the many books I've read or skimmed in the past seven years that attempted to get inside the social and political debacles of the present, none has had the chilling clarity and historical discernment of Sheldon S. Wolin's Democracy Incorporated. Building on his fifty years as a political theorist and proponent of radical democracy, Wolin here extends his concern with the extinguishing of the political and its replacement by fraudulent simulations of democratic process."--Jonathan Crary, Artforum
"[W]e need to understand the deep roots of our present troubles ourselves and Wolin's book is an excellent beginning."--Toby Grace, Out in Jersey
"Democracy Incorporated acts as an antidote to unconstrained corporate power and an elitist obsession and should be widely read by all those who cherish democracy and civil liberty."--Shih-Yu Chou, Political Studies Review
"[Wolin] provides a rich narrative of the struggle of elites and the demos from ancient Greece through the writing of the U.S. Constitution and into the present, and the corporate-managed politics that has emerged will survive no matter which party holds Congress or the presidency."--Coleman Fannin, Journal of Church and State
"Despite being written shortly before both the financial crisis and the Obama victory, the main lineaments of his analysis are still alarmingly cogent."--Tom Angier, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
"To find our way back to normalcy in a time of crisis and emergency we must ask ourselves, 'how did we get here?' Wolin’s wisdom is a helpful guide for that journey."--Salon
From the Back Cover
"With his fundamental grasp of political theory and restless spirit to get at the essence of what threatens modern democracy, Wolin demonstrates that the threats to our democratic traditions and institutions are not always from outside, but may come from within. It is a book that policymakers and scholars of contemporary society should read and reflect upon."--Rakesh Khurana, Harvard Business School, author of From Higher Aims to Hired Hands
"As we've come to expect from Sheldon Wolin, a tightly argued and deeply revealing book about the dangers of unconstrained capitalism for our democracy."--Robert B. Reich, University of California, Berkeley
"For half a century, Sheldon Wolin has been one of the most distinguished and influential political theorists in the United States and a perceptive observer of the American political scene. In his magisterial latest book, Wolin shows himself at the height of his powers as he presents a highly original, sober, and persuasive account of a number of tendencies in contemporary American society that constitute a significant danger for the future of constitutional democracy. If totalitarianism establishes itself in the United States, it will be in the 'inverted' form Wolin analyzes in this important book."--Raymond Geuss, University of Cambridge
"Wolin's writing has a resonance that binds the canon of political philosophy to unfolding events and present circumstances. In Democracy Incorporated, he contends that the institutions and practices that Americans regarded as their defense against totalitarianism--and other forms of authoritarian domination--have failed them. There is nothing like this book. It is a major, potentially revolutionary contribution to political thought."--Anne Norton, author of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire
"Powerful and persuasive. Democracy Incorporated does exactly what great political theory should do: it provides a theoretical framework that allows the reader to see the political world anew. It left this reader with an almost nightmarish vision of American politics today, a nightmare all the more terrifying for being so compelling, so vivid, and so real."--Marc Stears, author of Progressives, Pluralists, and the Problems of the State
Top customer reviews
This book should be viewed as a call to arms, even though, in a very real sense, the war is already over and we, the people, have already lost. The war for transnational corporate hegemony has been marked here at home by the relentless dismantling of an already shaky scaffolding of American liberal democracy. Being constructed in its place is a virtually impenetrable authoritarian fortress protecting (and shielding from view) an unholy alliance among self-serving economic elites, self-appointed intellectual elites and self-promoting politicians who feign statesmanship while leaving bewildered rank and file Americans standing on the platform as the prosperity train pulls away from the station.
The importance of this book, and this line of inquiry, cannot be over-stated. It is not an entirely easy read, but that is because it is so densely packed with vital information - it's like eating an incredibly nutrient-rich energy bar for your brain. Pick it up and open your eyes to the real state of the world around you - if it doesn't cause you to jump into action, shame on you.
The term "Inverted Totalitarianism" addresses the obvious rejoinder many people might make: Isn't America still a democracy? Where was the Machtergreifung--the coup or takeover of power? Wolin asserts that it does not require brown shirts marching in the streets for a totalitarian takeover to take place. In Inverted Totalitarianism, the Fuehrer is the product of the system (George W. Bush), not the architect; it does not celebrate the state but uses an informal network of corporate and political power. Inverted Totalitarianism does not mobilize its populations (the way communism and the Nazis mobilized theirs) with endless parades and speeches, but it keeps them quiet with Reality TV and consumer culture; it does not require unanimity among the people, but fosters a splintering of public opinion, etc. Still, the end result is a de-fanged democracy, laying prostrate before a mighty corporate elite in love with its own power.
In fact, the author avers that there was no intention of abolishing democracy in America. "Inverted totalitarianism" is the result, the grand total, of an infinite number of small actions that have accumulated in American history in recent decades. He also delivers one of the best accounts I have read so far of the counter-intuitive alliance between the Christian Right and American corporate elites, who seem so different from each other on first look. Yet what these two groups share, according to Wolin, is a deep veneration for sacred texts and objects (the bible, the constitution, the market) and a dynamic vision to change current society for an idealized past/apocalyptic future that needs to be realized by radical means.
If the reader already felt an inkling that something like this is going on, Wolin's book provides helpful categories of analysis to put it all together. According to Wolin, elitist republicanism and democracy always led an uncomfortable coexistence in American history. What tilted the country toward elite rule was "Superpower"--the vision of unlimited American military might abroad, which was created during World War II and fostered by the Cold War. "Superpower" demands unlimited freedom to act in secrecy by a small elite and can justify its actions with reason of state. 9/11 was the moment "Superpower" took over decisively.
In the introduction to the paperback edition, Wolin states that Barack Obama sees himself as providing change in the sense of a corrective, not as a radical change of direction, which many of his supporters, and Wolin himself, would have liked. Therefore the 2008 elections did not signal a significant departure from managed democracy. Writing in the summer of 2011, it's hard for me to disagree with this assessment.
On the other hand, this book will probably not change many people's minds. While Wolin relies on close reading of a few documents--such as the Federalist Papers--and makes excellent use of scholarly secondary literature in political science and history, his case is broad and assertive, rather than deep and persuasive. In order to fill in details the reader will have to consult other sources. For that reason, readers who already believe Wolin will readily agree with him, but others will demand more evidence and a more detailed account of how all of this came about. My tip: Look at the footnotes and keep reading.
Wolin does not offer much in terms of how to change all of this. Writers such as Chris Hedges use him to argue that essentially all is lost and what is left is peaceful, physical resistance. Wolin does notice that Superpower has been waning lately and that more and more Americans simply don't want to sacrifice more at home for ludicrous adventures abroad. As 1989 showed, a whole political system can collapse at a moment's notice. First cracks in the coalition between "Tea Party" and corporate conservatives can also be observed. So maybe we should not despair yet and instead work at mobilizing a counter-public sphere and alternative centers of power. On the other hand, watching the daily news emanating from Washington, it's hard not to become deeply pessimistic.
The book is a bit rambling and should have been cut by about 1/3, but like a doctor who diagnoses a disease, Wolin gives a name to phenomena many Americans have noted but could not quite put into context. For that reason the book provides a useful service and should be read widely.
He makes an excellent presentation of the transformations we have undergone and the silent nature ( in public discourse ) of the executions.
Sheldon is a master at using the best words to express his ideas. I had to look up a lot of words, and thankfully I had my Kindle version of this book, so I had dictionaries and Wikipedia at my fingertips.
In the course of presenting his thesis, Sheldon provides a master crash course of the history of our democratic involvement, or, to be more exact, the demos' struggles and efforts for their inclusion in politics and for the realization of a democratic political process, and their struggles against the elites in order to claim an equal voice in the political power and process.
Finally, Sheldon Wolin presents his thesis with more than enough evidence supporting that we indeed are in an inverted totalitarian system.